By Steve Janes
The Targhee National Forest has received a request to allow backcountry access via helicopter for skiing in some of the more remote areas of the forest in the Centennial Mountain range. This request would likely affect multiple-usage of certain areas and create user conflicts.
Originally, members of an exclusive golf and ski club at Big Sky, MT, put together a proposal for the Ashton/Island Park District of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. It was then followed up by another proposal from Rocky Mountain Heli, another Big Ski-based LLC that was recently formed.
The permit requests backcountry skiing via helicopter access within the forest boundaries. Right now, although everything is in the early stages according to the Island Park Ranger District, the permit might very well move forward through a vetting/research stage designed to allow the LLC to access the region, photograph the landscape, and outline prospective routes and landing areas to facilitate heli-skiing. To this point, helicopters would not be permitted at this phase of discovery.
What is being requested? That the Rocky Mountain Heli LLC would have exclusive rights to this special-use permit, which could exclude the general public from similar use opportunities.
The application request would be for helicopter access to the remote areas in the Centennial Mountain range which is on the western end of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Not only is this area popular for snowmobiling and backcountry skiing, it also severs as a habitat linkage to central Idaho’s wilderness complex.
At the center of the area is Idaho’s Mt. Jefferson.
What are the main concerns? There are a couple of issues that have generated opposition. The first being to allow an exclusive-use permit for a new user group while excluding the traditional user groups from the area.
The second is the impact of the noise to the area—the sound of helicopters soaring in and out of the area throughout the winter. The sound from above does not respect state lines nor wilderness study area boundaries.
There are also concerns of wildlife impact and increased avalanche danger.
What is the Forest Service considering? Although the application listed five specific areas for potential “touch down” spots for helicopters around Mt. Jefferson, the Ranger District has already determined that most of those areas would be considered off limits due to present environmental restrictions, in particular, the presence of an endangered species of wolverines. For now, only two areas are being considered—an area adjacent to Sawtell Peak and an area adjacent to Reas Peak.
Both these areas represent popular snowmobiling destinations. This would definitely present a user conflict since the heli-skiers would not want snowmobiles marking up the slopes of potential ski routes and thus would require exclusive-use access.
Exclusive access would also create a conflict with both commercial and private backcountry skiers.
Presently the area district ranger is considering whether to issue a temporary permit for limited use, or just a research permit for fact-finding during the 2021 season. Then the Forest Service would consider an application for a longer term permit.
Who are the major players—Elizabeth Davy is the Ashton/Island Park district ranger who will be reviewing the process.
Rocky Mountain Heli LLC is the point organization in the application process which was filled with the National Forest in Dec. 2020. The founder/owner of Rocky Mountain Heli is a real estate developer and his company is located at Big Sky.
The Yellowstone Club, an exclusive Big Sky ski, golf and adventure group, originally initiated the original request application, but has since distanced itself from Rocky Mountain Heli LLC and seems no longer engaged in the application process.
Idaho snowmobilers (and all the Island Park, ID, businesses that benefit from snowmobilers) will be watching the application process very closely.
There is also a backcountry skiing yurt which has expressed concern of having the sound of helicopters not only disturb the tranquility of the area, but pose an avalanche danger in the rugged terrain accessed by these cross-country skiers.
Finally, the Winter Wildlands Alliance, a backcountry skiing advocacy group located in Boise, ID. This group has come out opposed to heli-skiing in the Centennial Mountains and has encouraged its members to write letters to stop the application from going forward.
What is the public imput process? According the Ashton/Island Park Ranger District, the application would need to go through the public hearing and environment impact assessments before it would be considered. However, the concerns of traditional user groups in the area is that by allowing the initial process to move forward, the possibility for this permit to be pushed through increases. Also, the time period for public input has already passed, leaving most of the general public out of the loop.
Is this something new? About 20 years ago a group out of Jackson Hole, WY proposed similar heli-skiing access to the Palisades Wilderness Study Area in the Bridger-Teton National Forest just south of the Centennial Mountains. This fight was eventually shut down by a federal judge who ruled that it would violate the 1984 Wyoming Wilderness Act.
Even as recent as 2018, U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming introduced a bill (H.R 4697) which would bypass the Forest Service and provide heli-skiing access to the Palisades area … but the bill couldn’t generate enough support in Congress to go anywhere.
Who’s on whose side? Some conflicts make strange bedfellows. Although it’s quite often that snowmobilers and cross-country skiers are on opposite sides of land-use issues, this is a case where they may set aside their differences and ban together to stop what could threaten their common interest—access to the Targhee National Forest.
The bottom line is neither snowmobilers, cross-country skiers nor other winter recreation user group wants helicopters hovering overhead and dropping in on them in an area that is already known to be avalanche terrain with a very susceptible snow pack.
Other. Here are excerpts from a public information release issued by the Ashton/Island Park Ranger District of the Targhee National Forest on Dec. 23, 2020. (We had done some editing to tighten up the release and eliminate any non-pertinent or repetitive information. Also, we couldn’t find this on the Caribou-Targhee National Forest website but found a copy of the release on the Winter Wildlands Alliance website.)
Dear Interested Party
Ashton/Island Park Ranger District of the Caribou Targhee National Forest received an application for a Helicopter skiing operation in the Centennial Mountains.
We are going through the application review process to determine if we accept the application for a special use permit.
The applicant has requested: Six to 12 user days with 10 to 12 people per day for the 2021 operating season from Jan. 1 to March 1, 2021. The purpose of this project is to validate feasibility of a helicopter ski operation within the Centennial Mountain Range within the allotted areas.
Items I am considering at this time are whether to issue a research permit for helicopter skiing in Zone 2 (Sawtell Peak) and Zone 3 (Reas Peak) or issue a temporary permit for 2021 operating season. A research permit would not involve guiding of clients and allow applicant’s employees to gather weather and snow pack information in these areas.
One to two fixed wing over-flights would occur in order for guides to photograph the ski runs and evaluate use patterns by other user’s such as snowmobilers. This permit would also include five days for applicant’s employees to snowmobile to various slopes to collect snow pack information.
A temporary one season permit would include: 1) 6 to 12 days for 2021 operating season. 2) Operate in Zones 2 and 3. The other three zones (1, 4, 5) were eliminated based on analysis in the Biological Assessment due to potential disturbance to wolverines. 3) Operate within the proposed operating season of Jan. 1 to March 1, 2021. According to an analysis performed by the District Wildlife Biologist and documented in a Biological Assessment, these dates are within Grizzly Bear denning period. 4) Submit a complete operating plan that includes safety measures, avalanche precautions, qualifications of guides, helicopter landing and pick up areas.
Your comments to a temporary permit would be most helpful in my decision making process if I receive them no later than Jan. 15, 2021. Input to the research permit would be most helpful if I receive your comments by Jan. 4, 2021. (Whoops … I guess we missed those dates. How convenient?)
The input I receive will assist me in making a decision about the temporary permit or research permit or no permit for operating season 2021. These steps outlined above would provide information both to the Forest Service and to the applicant about feasibility of a longer term special use permit for helicopter skiing in these areas.
If the applicant determines it is feasible, the next step is to submit a formal detailed application and I go through the acceptance process again. If I accept the application, then a more in depth environmental analysis would be completed. The opportunity for a priority use permit would also go out to the public for competitive bid to determine other interest in a helicopter skiing permit.
Elizabeth Davy, District Ranger